By Paul Fattig
When journalist Tom Banse answered his home-office telephone in Olympia, Wash., that day in 2010, little did he know it would lead him on a six-month journey of discovery.
“A listener called up out of the blue and started telling me this wild tale about disinterred Chinese remains,” recalled Banse, 45, the Pacific Northwest correspondent for National Public Radio.
It seems a Portland listener had found a box of historical documents while cleaning out a house.
The dusty records told the story of an effort in 1948-49 by the Oregon Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, in keeping with Chinese tradition, to send the bones of long-deceased Chinese back to their homeland.
The listener, who insisted on anonymity, sent the documents to Banse. His subsequent research determined the remains — bones — of 550 disinterred Chinese from Oregon never made it home and are now gathering dust in a warehouse in Hong Kong.
Among those remains are the bones of three Ashland residents disinterred in September of 1948. Wang Wang, 55, who died in 1913, and Sing Quong, 60, who died in 1906, had been buried in the Old Ashland Cemetery.
The remains of Wong Wong, 65, who died in 1917, were removed from the Mountain View Cemetery in Ashland.
At noon on Friday, Feb. 15, Banse will give a talk and slide show, “Unfinished Journey: A Treasure Box of Documents and a Long Trip Home,” at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. The free event will be held in the Meese Room of the Hannon Library.
Banse will make the same presentation the next day, at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 16, at the US Bank ballroom in Jacksonville, as part of the annual Chinese New Year Celebration organized by the Southern Oregon Chinese Cultural Association.
Chinese immigrants came to Oregon shortly after gold was discovered in Southern Oregon in 1851. In the 1870 U.S. Census, 3,330 Chinese were counted in Oregon, including 634 in Jackson County.
“There was terrible discrimination against the Chinese,” said Banse, who spent six months working on the story. His research would take him to Idaho and Oregon.
Chinese were restricted from working some mining claims, prompting them to rework abandoned mining sites, Banse said. Many were hired to dig mining ditches that brought water to placer mines, including those in Jackson and Josephine counties.
Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, barring additional laborers from immigrating from China. However, many of the sojourners from China found work building the railroad through the Siskiyou Mountains in the 1880s. Some lived in Ashland’s “Chinatown,” located in the railroad district, and were buried in Ashland cemeteries.
“In the Chinese culture, it is very important that descendants honor their ancestors by caring for their remains,” Banse said. “And they have to do that at a physical grave.”
That tradition prompted efforts every 10 to 20 years by the CCBA and others to disinter remains and send them back to China, he said. The group sent the remains of 615 Chinese in Oregon back to China in 1928, he noted.
After more Chinese remains were disinterred in 1948, they were all sent to Portland and placed aboard a ship bound for Hong Kong the following year, Banse said.
“That was where Murphy’s Law takes effect — everything that can go wrong does,” he said.
First, a shipping agent embezzled payment for the shipping, then a civil war erupted in China, causing the border to be closed between Hong Kong and the mainland.
“The border stayed closed for so long that the connections fell apart,” he said. “We know they are still there in Hong Kong. The remains of those 550 people have never gone back to any of their families.”
Before giving the physical documents to the CCBA in Portland, Banse gave a digitized copy to Oregon State University. The records are available at http://tinyurl.com/a8r3xgb
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.